Outspoken Pastor Is Out of the Pulpit

Times Staff Writer

For nearly 20 years, M. Andrew Robinson-Gaither, pastor of a small South Los Angeles church, has preached a volatile mix of politics, social protest and Christianity.

He has practiced it too. If there was a controversy in South Los Angeles, particularly one involving the police, Robinson-Gaither and Faith United Methodist Church were sure to be involved.

Now the outspoken pastor is out of the pulpit, and the small church itself is at the center of controversy. His congregation alleges that the pastor mismanaged church finances. And though he acknowledges serious financial problems, Robinson-Gaither maintains he is unwanted at Faith United because he pursued the one form of activism unacceptable to his congregation: a ministry dedicated to AIDS outreach .


“People would say to me, ‘You’re trying to make this a gay church,’ ” Robinson-Gaither said, sitting among partly packed boxes in the parsonage living room. “I really think that’s what’s behind this.”

Always slim, Robinson-Gaither is now gaunt. He took a leave of absence in June because of chronic health problems and was stunned to find out last month that his congregation did not want him to return.

Feeling hurt and betrayed, Robinson-Gaither has been outspoken about his departure, giving interviews at private and public gatherings. The flap has roiled the tightknit world of activists and stunned his former congregation, which says he could not be more mistaken.

“Pastor Gaither’s leaving Faith United has broken my heart,” said political commentator and community activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson. “More churches are getting involved now, and I’ll give them credit, but Faith United, with Pastor Andrew, really bucked the tide. It was a groundbreaking church.”

With a congregation of barely 200 people, Faith United has been an anomaly among black parishes in Los Angeles, muscling its way to a seat among mega-churches through the sheer commitment of its members and activism of its pastor.

When 13-year-old Devin Brown was shot by a police officer, Faith played host to community meetings. Faith was a first stop for former Black Panther Party leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt after his release from prison in 1997, and where Robinson-Gaither eulogized former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in 1998.


When Republicans began courting black pastors in 2001, they flew Robinson-Gaither to Sacramento to meet with legislators, and to Washington, where he and other black preachers met with then-Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

With its pastor publicly questioning its commitment to embracing gays, Faith United’s congregation is caught between potentially conflicting definitions of itself: revolutionary or repressive.

“I had one activist call and ask whether he should gather people to picket the church because of what had happened to Pastor,” said longtime member Mollie Bell. “I love my pastor, we love Pastor here, but what he’s saying is just not the case.”

Other congregants are also shocked at the allegations of homophobia. Last Sunday the church observed World AIDS Day, and red ribbons adorned the lapels and dresses of most of the congregants. In gentle tones and with sympathetic shakes of the head, members spoke lovingly of Robinson-Gaither, then said he was wrong.

“We have an AIDS pantry, we volunteer, we welcome everybody here,” said longtime parishioner Irene Barney, wearing an AIDS ribbon.

Both sides agree that Robinson-Gaither has long had health problems and that he voluntarily asked to go on six months’ leave in June. The severity of the church’s financial problems emerged during that time, according to the board, which filed a formal grievance against him with the Methodist district superintendent.


Robinson-Gaither argues that the church’s finances have long been known to both the board and the superintendent, and that they are being used as an excuse to oust him.

Regardless of which side prevails, Robinson-Gaither’s words have resonated throughout the area’s black churches, most of which preach that homosexuality is a sin.

The Rev. Richard Meri Ka Ra Byrd, pastor of the KRST Unity Center and a longtime activist and Robinson-Gaither ally, said he has watched Robinson-Gaither “take heat” over the years for his support of civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights.

“Is it possible to be both a community activist and pastor at a mainstream church with mainstream teachings? It’s very difficult,” he said. “Your people will desert you at this particular time in history.”

The relationship between the pulpit and the pocketbook is perilous for all ministers, he said. The conundrum for a church devoted to the poor, the marginalized and the powerless is that those people also tend to have less money to give.

At Faith United, “they haven’t supported him fully, and the church is in financial difficulty because of the lack of support,” Byrd said.


Robinson-Gaither may have been a good community activist, some members said, but he did not handle the nitty-gritty details of church administration.

Last week the church could make only half its payroll, and another parishioner urged worshipers to give generously. The church has not paid its apportionment to the Methodist district office for almost eight years and owes more than $125,000 in back taxes and other debt, Robinson-Gaither said.

“He’s a wonderful pastor and a wonderful person, but not necessarily the best steward,” Barney said.

Robinson-Gaither, who has received an eviction notice, said he will vacate the parsonage when he finds a new home. He has another six months of disability left, he said. After that, his pastoral fate is uncertain.

In the meantime, worshipers at Faith United said his powerful preaching and commitment to activism are still in their hearts.

“He’s left a wonderful legacy here,” Bell said. “I came here because of Pastor’s activism, and we’re still keeping on keeping on. The AIDS ministry is still going on, and we’re not changing course.”